A giant-killer or a windmill-tilter? Photo illustration by Abraham Rodriguez

OFFICER: We’ve analyzed their attack, sir, and there is a danger. Should I have your ship standing by?

TARKIN: Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances.  

Shahid Buttar, the man who would unseat 17-term incumbent Rep. Nancy Pelosi, — who has, since being elected to Congress in 1987, ascended to become the powerful and influential Speaker of the House — is in for a hell of a shlep. 

But don’t tell him that. 

“I am increasingly convinced,” he tells your humble narrator, “that not only are we going to win, but it is inevitable.” 

This is a powerful statement that blurs the lines between confidence and bravado and hubris — and a claim that does not resonate with most any political player in town. Or the dictionary. But, on the heels of Pelosi’s embittered back-and-forth with the so-called “squad,” the quartet of left-leaning, female, minority first-year Congresswomen urging more drastic action be taken against the president, Buttar’s fund-raising efforts ignited.

“With Nancy Pelosi so repeatedly undermining progressive interests and enabling our criminal president,” Buttar says, “she’s practically campaigning on my behalf.”  

Ouch. But the numbers: They don’t lie. Prior to July, Federal Election Commission files reveal Buttar’s finances to be just what you’d expect for the doomed opponent of a 17-term Congresswoman. As of June 30, Buttar had amassed some $48,000 over the prior three months and had about $21,000 in the bank (Pelosi, incidentally, has about $1.6 million on hand, and the fund-raising abilities of a conjurer). 

But, as of July 1, things changed for Buttar: He raised $38,000 in the next two weeks from more than 1,800 individual donors. That’s a dramatic uptick. But this isn’t really about the one-time cash infusion. It’s more about the donors. 

“The majority of people stay engaged and, in time, they give you more. If I have a donor, I can generally get $200 or $300 a year,” explains Adriel Hampton, a Buttar consultant specializing in online campaigning and fund-raising. Buttar now has more than 3,000 individual donors, with the lion’s share of those hopping on board in the last several weeks. “We have another eight months until the primary and another seven months after that until the general election. If we stopped amassing donors, we could still raise another $600,000. But we’re not stopping.” 

Tapping into the online rage — and pocketbooks — of the nation’s left has been a bonanza for Buttar. And his campaign has been savvy about this. The URL for the “about” page on his website is https://shahidforchange.us/about-shahid-buttar-pelosis-leading-2020-challenger/. That search engine-friendly address was no accident. Disgruntled would-be donors nationwide are funneled to his page. And, Hampton notes, the majority of July’s wave of donors do not hail from here. 

Hampton holds out hopes of cracking 10,000 individual donors by the third quarter of 2019 alone. Goals and plans he’d hoped to achieve by January are, suddenly, looking feasible for this summer.  

Twenty bucks from a pissed-off progressive in Poughkeepsie is only going to go so far. But the Netflix-like regularity of monthly donations from thousands or tens of thousands of regular donors would enable Buttar to move from the virtual to the real world by bringing in on-the-ground staff. Hires that were slated for January 2020 are now likely to take place in August 2019. 

“Volunteers only go so far. We need people managing them,” explains Hampton. “If we raise $500,000, we can put up a good challenge. But if we raise $2 million, we can beat her.” 

Unlike his boss, Hampton refrains from using the “I”-word — inevitable. Rather, he says, if a confluence of factors fall in the right direction, then Buttar’s chances are elevated from Powerball-like to 1-in-1,000 to, perhaps, 1-in-5. 

That sounds measured. But the historical stats regarding challengers to sitting Speakers of the House don’t inspire even measured talk: The last speaker to be dethroned by a challenger was Tom Foley in 1994. The last one before that was the sumptuously named Galusha Grow — in 1862. 

San Francisco voters think highly of themselves. That’s not always warranted, but it’s likely that we are a tad more sophisticated than the Washington State electorate that dumped Foley in ’94. The man who beat Foley, a Republican named George Nethercutt, recalls instances of voters telling him they assumed he would, by right of vanquishing the Speaker, assume the speaker’s duties. 

That’s not how it works, obviously; we’re not dealing with the king of Wakanda here. 

It’s not likely that all too many San Francisco voters head to the polls with this dim an understanding of what’s at stake in this election — at this moment in the nation’s history — and what role Nancy Pelosi plays in the local and national political ecosystem. 

The list of Speakers of the House who’ve lost re-election campaigns includes Tom Foley in 1994 and Galusha Grow in 1862 … and that’s it.

Multiple messages left for the executive director of Pelosi’s re-election campaign, Jorge Aguilar, went unreturned. No surprise there (Evacuate? In our moment of triumph?). Her people didn’t want to talk about even the existence of a political challenger. And yet, unlike so many veteran politicians who’ve grown atrophied in office and take the home district for granted, Pelosi remains active on the local scene. “I’m not trying to call out the local politicians,” says a longtime city politico, “but I go to all the local events. And she or her staff are more present than a lot of the local politicians.”

While the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over longtime Rep. Joe Crowley would seem, at first, to be an analog to what may happen here, it isn’t exactly that. Crowley had fallen asleep at the switch in a New York district that had undergone a demographic, ideological, and generational shift. His district changed, but he didn’t. It’s hard to say that’s happened here in San Francisco. It’s certainly hard to say San Francisco, which is growing richer and whiter* by the moment, has changed in a way that would favor an anti-establishment candidate.  

Your humble narrator spoke with more than half a dozen veteran political consultants, campaign managers, and others who’d run scores of elections in this town. None gave Buttar even a remote shot. 

“Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker because she takes everything seriously. She is a serious person — but this is not a serious challenge,” says Eric Jaye, the consultant who steered Gavin Newsom into City Hall and subsequently helped guide Jane Kim’s state senate and mayoral campaigns. “Pelosi is going to have overwhelming support in San Francisco. Yes, there are going to be some loud voices — and it might be a bit louder on Twitter. But Pelosi is going to be re-elected in San Francisco so long as she chooses to stand for office.” 

Adds Jim Stearns, the consultant who helmed Mark Leno’s mayoral campaign and is the go-to man for city progressives, “the situation with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and ‘the squad’ is the opening Shahid has been looking for. And if he can take advantage of it he might gain some traction. But that puts him from the level of zero visibility to some visibility.” 

Pelosi, Stearns continues, has cultivated relationships with city progressives like former Mission Supervisor David Campos, now the chair of the county Democratic Party. “For somebody to have a shot at getting Pelosi, they have to split off some progressive Democrats,” Stearns says. 

And, so far, that hasn’t happened. 

“Look, these are personal issues for me. I was in a detention camp as a child,” says Campos. “I do not support funding ICE. I support impeachment. But, with that said, I am a strong supporter of Nancy Pelosi. I want someone who can effectively move forward an agenda in Congress. I am unapologetic about my progressive views, but I am also unapologetic about my support for Nancy Pelosi.” 

Hampton notes that a March 2020 California primary in which Bernie Sanders is on the ballot bodes well for his candidate. And yet, it’s hard to imagine Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or other candidates with cachet on the left coming to town to stump for votes and cash — and not paying fealty to 17-term incumbent Nancy Pelosi, who could help them with both of those things.

And while Buttar’s status as a serious Constitutional lawyer and digital privacy advocate will mollify moderate-leaning voters who wish Pelosi was more aggressively pursuing the impeachment option, his status as a Burning Man figure, spoken-word poet, and electronic dance music performer will likely not. Buttar’s Buckaroo Banzai breadth of interests is probably most appealing to those already inclined to vote for him. 

Inevitable means different things to different people, it would seem.

And — inevitably — Buttar doesn’t express much concern with the Don Quixote-like role assigned to his campaign by this city’s political powers-that-be. 

“I look forward,” he says, “to eating all their lunches.” 

*As seen in the comments below, yes, San Francisco is actually a shade less white than it was in 2010. It is, however, far richer. In short, there has not been a demographic transformation of the sort that occurred in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district — and this city’s vast influx of wealth has, as noted in the piece, not been a godsend for anti-establishment politics. 

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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31 Comments

  1. I believe Shahid will absolutely win. If there’s enough will, there’s a way — Shahid certainly has the will to win.

    Nancy Pelosi was sent to Congress in 2018 with the expectation that her, along with the other elected Democrats, would act as a “check” on Trump.

    Currently the only check(s) we’ve seen have been to fund concentration camps for children, inhumane immigration policies, and endless war (one of Nancy’s favorite topics!).

    What we actually need is 1) Impeachment, 2) Medicare For All, 3) A Green New Deal, 4) College For All, 5) and to end all wars. Nancy supports zero of the previous points.

    Time for change. Get her out. And replace her with someone ready to actually lead — Shahid!

    1. No leftist is going to unseat the greatest progressive in the history of the House Nancy Pelosi, it’s nothing but a looney pipe dream.

      1. My definition of “looney pipe dream” is calling Nancy Pelosi the greatest progressive in the history of the House.

      2. Anyone using progressive to describe Nancy Pelosi either hasn’t been paying attention or has a misunderstanding of the term

      3. How on earth can you possibly consider Pelosi a progressive??? She is the very opposite. Unbelievable. Please, cite even one area in which Pelosi is progressive. I’m very curious how anyone can think such a thing.

  2. Full disclosure – I’m a Shahid volunteer. That said, I used to be a Pelosi supporter. But her abject failure to address the crises we face in SF today – climate change, healthcare, immigration, housing, and holding Trump accountable – have forced me to support someone willing to fight for meaningful change. If any of these issues are important to you, you owe it yourself to go hear Shahid speak. He’s the real deal. And don’t be put off by the lack of support from local politicians – there isn’t a single one that will risk Pelosi’s wrath. This win is going to be from the people, by the people.

  3. People on the streets and meeting places of San Francisco are loving what Shahid Buttar and his very energized volunteers have to say, and even more what he – and they – DO to show support for Medicare For All, Green New Deal, workers rights and other issues. Not to mention that San Franciscans are mad every day that Pelosi is blocking an impeachment inquiry. And we’re just getting started. Never say never…

  4. Campers,

    Real star here is Adriel Hampton.

    His mom home schooled him and first public school he attended was Berkeley.

    Ended up editor of their campus rag.

    At 24 he was City Editor of the Examiner.

    Smartest guy you’ve talked to, Joe.

    Go Giants!

    h.

  5. Nancy Pelosi is failing us. She’s an enabler of the richest few, and by extension, Donald Trump.
    Nancy is no part of a solution to our problems, just a contributor to them.
    And that’s why I support and donate to Shahid Buttar.
    ~

  6. Shahid Buttar versus the San Francisco Democratic Party/Nancy Pelosi machine?

    People think this will be close? That is truly hilarious.

    He showed up in California only to attend Stanford Law? Or was it Burning Man? Whatever, doesn’t matter. NEXT.

    Looking forward to voting for Nancy Pelosi once again!

    Sincerely,

    a SF liberal who NEVER voted for Newsom (never will, either). Seems like I’m the target demographic for Buttar, but I’ll stick with Madam Speaker. Thanks.

      1. Feel free to call me names, but I’ll be again voting for Nancy and disappointing the Buttar/Bernie Bros who will undoubtedly come knocking at my door on Capp Street looking for my support.

        Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House. She’s not perfect, but my definition of perfection isn’t a sending a Stanford lawyer/wannabe hippie/burning man character to congress to represent us with zero seniority. Cheers and best of luck on your ‘revolution.’

  7. Win or lose, Shahid will force Pelosi to run against someone who PLAINLY is more in sync with the voters Pelosi purports to represent than she is. That opportunity alone makes the mission, by definition, not Quixotic.

    Pelosi coddles Trump, helping him evade accountability just as she did when Bush was in office. She opposes every important progressive policy on the docket, including policies that have the backing of a wide majority of the country at large. She used to at least be decent at playing the “game,” but that’s slipping as well.

    We can’t afford her tepid leadership at a time when we are facing existential threats to our democracy and our planet. SF deserves better. Shahid has the vision.

  8. Shahid has got what it takes to go all the way. I’ll never understand why Joe Ezkenazi is always so dismissive of challenger candidates. Since AOC defeated the DNC’s second biggest fundraiser, why does he think it’s so impossible to overtake the DNC’s first biggest fundraiser? I’m proud to be supporting the Shahid For Change campaign. Nancy’s got to go, and if she needs help retiring, we’ll we’ve got her number for that.

    1. Sir or madam —

      Nobody is “dismissive,” this is called “reporting.” All of the rationales are in the article. Either read it or read it again.

      Best,

      JE

      1. I’m frankly excited to be the subject of your poetry any day, Joe!

        In my view, your story presents a balanced view of our demonstrated progress alongside the continuing skepticism of the city’s political establishment. My only addition would be to note why that skepticism is sadly predictable: our challenge confronts a powerbroker to whom establishment voices generally defer, and with whom they curry favor.

        More memorable, from my perspective, is the closing compliment comparing me to the brave and brilliant Buckaroo Banzai! The emergent question it insinuates is whether San Franciscans prefer a voice of privilege committed to defending the status quo, or instead a sincere representation of not only our city’s unique and visionary values (which the incumbent sadly long ago abandoned), but also our unique and incomparable culture (which I reflect from my head to my toes).

        We’re betting on the latter, and jumping on the scale. Thanks again for covering our campaign!

  9. I’ve believed this campaign can win from the beginning for a simple reason: San Franciscans are progressive, and we want universal health care. Pelosi’s edge is that many of her voters are unaware that she has a history of impeding any progress toward single payer. With enough time to inform voters and form a people’s movement, we can elect a representative who actually stands for SF’S values.

  10. The article says that San Francisco “is growing richer and whiter by the moment”. The richer part may well be true, but the whiter part is not, according to Census data. The percentage of white residents in SF has slowly but steadily declined every year for a long time. The 2010 Census had SF at 48.5% white, the 2017 American Community Survey data set (the most recent data available) has it at 47.2%. It’s possible that that trend has reversed itself in the past two years, but journalists should not make such claims without evidence, especially when the evidence that does exist points the other way.

    1. Fair enough. This is a valid point. I have put a note in the story. Suffice to say, however, there has not been a demographic transformation in this city of the sort that took place in New York’s 14th District. If anything, the vast influx of wealth has enabled the pre-existing powers-that-be.
      Best,

      JE

    2. Hmm, 1.5% difference from different surveys separated by a few years? With no margin of error?
      I think the most you can say based on that data is ‘we don’t know’ or ‘about the same’. If we are talking numbers let’s use the full context.

      That said, if you get out and ‘survey’ on your own, the impression will be quite clearly that things are significantly more white. That is also reflected by the lifestyles which have gained in popularity, new businesses that open, cultural acts that visit and perform etc.

      Finally, it is very safe to say that the non-white population of SF residents that have been here for > 20 years is rapidly declining. If you wish, you can daily find that data for neighborhoods that were non-white in the last 50 years or more.

      Finally finally, if you look at the broader Bay Area, including the E Bay, N Bay, and Peninsula — the whitening trends are clear.

      But it’s no surprise right? Extreme costs of living and monothematic employment are not going to bode well for diversity…

  11. I suggest this man lookup the name Tom Spinoza. I follow these things. Spinoza was the sacrificial lamb the Repubs put up for years against Phil Burton. He never won. (Correct me if I am wrong, but AI do believe that Nancy Pelosi slotted into Burton’s congressional seat for her first election 32-34 years ago.) But remember it is only only Repubs that are allowed to be career politicians. (No names but, ahem, ahem, MMc.)

  12. 17 term is quite enough thank you. It is very apperant Mrs. Pelosi has forgotten her progressive roots. She has fallen in love with the Washington DC power circle. Time to bring her home. I was floored to see her marginalizing young women like she has. I will be donating and voting against her.

  13. Thank you for this article, I enjoyed every word. From a distance, yet a SF voter, I do think Pelosi will go for impeachment when the time is right. with a Repub controlled Senate, it would be a total waste of valuable time. I think they are getting closer to unseating Trump. The other issues mentioned are not going to be dealt with easily or quickly. Climate change is a world problem and Trump is blocking and championing policies that win him immediate dollars and some backing, but are selling the future out. He has to go. Only when the timing is right will it succeed. To begin impeachment with such a dim possibility of clearing the Senate would be foolish. All the steps must be fulfilled before the time is ripe. Maybe it takes her stubbornness to succeed on this issue.

    1. I’ve heard the rationale that Pelosi is somehow waiting for the “right time” to hold Trump accountable. If that is truly her strategy it is failing miserably, not only within her own party, but her lack of action is in fact enabling Trump and his allies. There is no way a sitting president undergoing impeachment for the crimes Trump has committed is somehow going work in his favor. The 2020 election will be won by 1) galvanizing those that sat home in 2016 and 2) convincing those “on the fence” that Trump is indeed a criminal. Ignoring his crimes by doing nothing is a path to disaster. Besides, the whole reason she isn’t pursuing this route is so she can get other important work done. Which she hasn’t. Nothing on climate change, nothing on healthcare, nothing on immigration (other than to lay down for Trump, nothing on infrastructure. Time for someone that will fight for meaningful change.

  14. Adriel Hampton: A contracted bundler.

    And this article was a fun romp by the author.

    I wish we had the guy who ran on, “The rent is too damn high!”

  15. I have assessed him from many articles and interviews post-controversy” and found him to be highly likeable and frankly, brilliant . I have been donating to Shahid regularly.

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